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2023 NFL Draft Prospect Interview: Chizi Umunakwe, LB, Central Connecticut State University

Chizi Umunakwe the standout linebacker from Central Connecticut State recently sat down with Draft Diamonds writer Justin Berendzen.
  • Name: Chizi Umunakwe
  • Position: LB
  • College: Central Connecticut State University
  • Height: 6’1″
  • Weight: 225 lbs
  • Twitter: @chiz2017
  • Instagram: @chizzy_chizzz

What made you decide you wanted to be a football player?

I love this question, because asking me this is like asking me why I breathe. The same as asking me why I wake up everyday, get out of bed motivated to conquer the day, everyday. I don’t think I just woke up one day and decided to be a football player. I came to this country from Nigeria at the age of 8 and saw all the opportunities that were available to me. Coming from an African background I had very strict parents who expected nothing but the best from their kids. There were five of us and although our parents preached being doctors and engineers, I knew I had to make something out of myself and make the best of my opportunities. When I first started playing football sophomore year of high school, I did it to stay in shape for basketball season because I was a basketball player. Before basketball I was a soccer player, that was my first sport and what made me fall in love with sports. When I came to this country soccer wasn’t as popular but my dad still did his best to help us continue in the sport. Which I loved him for because I knew I made him proud on the field. I was never the smartest academically in school so I knew being average would not make my parents proud. I fell in love with sports at a young age and noticed myself improving every year. Summer of 2014, sophomore year of high school, was the first time I spoke to a coach about playing football, after watching the movie ‘When The Game Stands Tall’. I fell in love with football through that movie and came back to school the next day and asked the coach if I could try out to be on the junior varsity team. I remember this like it was yesterday, the coach took me to the football field and had me throw the football as far as I could. From the endzone I threw the football about 60 yards, then he told me to run as fast as I can and bring him the football. So I did as he instructed, ran as fast as I could and retrieved the football. He called me an African Gazelle, which I found hilarious. The first position he wanted me to play was quarterback, but after the first practice he saw me throw the football like a baseball the coach moved me to slot receiver. From there I scored 4 touchdowns the first home game and the varsity coach wanted to move me up right away. But I felt as though I wasn’t ready. After averaging 3 touchdowns a game, the coach didn’t give me a choice anymore. After my 4th junior varsity game I was moved up and around week 6 I was the starting safety on the varsity team only my first year playing football. We underachieved that season, but during the off season my relationship with the football coach became stronger. I still wanted to play basketball, but when the track and field coach spoke to me and gave me a speech about combining football and track and dominating in both because they go hand in hand, I was sold. From then on I put the basketball down and focused on football and track. About 7 years later I regret nothing!

What are your favorite moments from your football life?

My favorite moments from my football life so far are the relationships I have developed with coaches and players. The thing I love about football so much is the way it brings people together. People from all different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different beliefs, different upbringings, but when we are on that field wearing the same jersey we are one team, one family. The relationships I have created through my journey as a football player are ones that I know will last a lifetime. Some of the people that are in my life now I never would have met if it weren’t for football. WIthout football I might have never even interacted with these people. I always look back to my 2016-17 senior season because that was the first winning season of my football career where we made it to the second round of the playoffs after coming off a 2-8 losing season. The seniors in my class along with me really came together to turn the program around because we knew the pain we felt going through that losing season and we did not want to experience that feeling again especially our last year. I thought we did something special because the hard work we put in plus the leadership the seniors showed really made me a believer that hard work truly pays off. That mindset was embedded in me throughout the rest of my football career.

What sets you apart from other linebackers?

What sets me apart from other linebackers I believe is my sideline to sideline speed, my mobility, and my ability to learn from my mistakes and adapt on the fly. I started playing the middle linebacker position my freshman year of college in 2018. Throughout high school I’ve pretty much played every position on the defense and most on offense. When I got to my 5th year of high school, because I reclassified for football, I played tailback and rover/safety. I would say this was the most comfortable I’ve been playing football because that’s really when it all came together for me. I am a player who likes to play off the edge and in space so when I got to college and was thrown at the middle linebacker position I did struggle my first year and it showed. Most of the plays I made on the field my freshman year were made on pure instincts and athleticism. I did not understand how to read the front line at the time because it was never taught to me well in detail. But what I truly love about the game of football is that there is so much to learn. I am a very coachable player who loved being coached up because I am a product of my coaching. Now going into my senior year I am very comfortable at the middle linebacker position. I liked this question so much that I had to ask my coaches, past and present, on what sets me apart from other linebackers. My high school coach said “Your work ethic, versatility, speed and athleticism. You’ve played literally every single LB position”. My DC/LB coach here at CCSU said “Your best asset is your ability to run and change direction, fluid hips and your movement”. My outside LB coach here at CCSU said “Your ability to run, at your size you have the ability to run with anybody on the field (RBs, TEs, even WRs) very few LBs can do that. And your natural instincts, you do a good job of finding the ball and slipping blocks to make plays”.

What type of energy do you bring onto the football field?

The type of energy I bring on the football field isn’t one that many can duplicate because it’s REAL. I feel like on the football field is the one place I can truly be myself sometimes. I have watched so many of the greats and how they play the game and the energy they bring to the game. They all have one thing in common, when they flip the switch they are a completely different person on and off the field. I feel as though I do a good job of flipping the switch when I’m on the field. Because one thing about the game of football is you can’t fake anything, if your heart isn’t in it all the way it’s going to show! I am a true believer of this, because there have been games where I could feel the energy resonating from one team more than the other team and 9/10 times the team with more energy usually wins the game. I like to motivate those around me, get them in the zone, get them hype so we can feed off each other’s energies. When I see my teammate make a big play I get excited and hype for them and vice versa when I make a big play I celebrate with my teammates and that energy is contagious! When you have a full team on that type of timing that’s when you know you have something special because you can feel it!

If you could hang out with any football player past or present for a day who and why?

If I could hang out with any football player past or present for a day, I would hang out with Sean Taylor, the safety from Washington back in the day. Honestly when I first started playing football, I didn’t know much about the legends, goats, HOF, the culture or the meaning behind the reason some players loved curtain number jerseys. When I first heard of Sean Taylor I was in high school, and I remember how much his story resonated with me. I saw the way he played the game as it should be played and it truly inspired me and the way I play the game. I would love to ask him about his work ethic and his mindset going into games because he was fearless!

How do you prepare for games?

I prepare for games by praying. First thing I do is Pray on game day, thank God for the opportunity at hand. One thing my mother always taught me was to pray before competition because you never know what could happen. So having God’s protection on your side always helps. Football wise I listen to my gameday music, put my mean mug face on and get my mind mentally ready to go to war!

What should we know about Chizi Umunakwe the person?

Chizi the person strives his best to do the right thing whether the camera is on him or not. At the end of the day it’s me vs me. I never compare my situation or position with someone else’s. I have what most called tunnel vision and when I have my mind set on something I become a man possessed. I believe in my heart that nothing in life is guaranteed but the hard work you put in. People can take a lot of things away from you but no one can take away the hard work you put in on a day to day basis. I am a true believer that hard work pays off, because I only started playing football my sophomore year of high school and although I didn’t know much about the sport, I knew I had to work hard if I wanted to go anywhere with it. I have a very competitive side where I don’t like to lose, whether it’s on the football field or the track field. I always liked the saying that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Even in my younger days when I took some losses I never gave up and always found a way to bounce back. I have a never give up attitude that’s instilled in me through all the hardships I’ve gone through and had to overcome!

What is your favorite defensive scheme and why?

I don’t think I have a particular ‘favorite defensive scheme’. I’ve played in linebacker the 3-4 and 4-3, I’m very interchangeable between linebacker positions. I love a defense where I’m able to fly around and make plays!

How do you handle challenges both in life and on the football field?

My high school coach had a saying that stuck with me one time. He said the strongest humans aren’t the ones that are most talented. He said the ones who have the ability to adapt to the ever changing times are the strongest. And he was right. I experienced this during covid when the whole world changed literally in the blink of an eye. Everyone had to adapt to the ‘new normal’. Some did better than others but I think we all can say everyone was impacted in some way or another due to covid. I learned how to push through adversity because I realized no one was going to do it for me. I have one chance to make my dreams a reality, Not just for me but for my mother and my siblings. I can’t bend, brake or fold! I’ve come so far! I thank the man above for blessing me with the gifts and physical attributes I was born with. But all that would mean nothing if I didn’t put in the hours of hard work day in and out.

What would a team get in a player like you?

A team would get a team player in a player like me. I am very selfless to say the least. Always ready, able and willing to do what is required of me to help my team win. Whether it’s supporting and cheering on my team or if it’s being out there making plays for the team. Through all my years of playing football I’ve come to realize that you go much farther as a team than as an individual. When you have a full team full of guys that are selfless and willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of the team. That is when you know you have a championship winning team.

What are you looking forward to in in upcoming season?

Well this is my last collegiate football season. After this that’s it for my college football career. Nothing is guaranteed, I can only focus on the here and now. This upcoming season I’m looking forward to laying it all out on the line for my senior season. I have never won a championship in all my years of playing football and have never received a ring. The closest I came to was during my 5th year at Trinity Pawling when we won a bowl game, but we still didn’t receive any rings. This being my last year I really want to win a championship. Get my first ring! I know it’s not going to be easy but it’s certainly possible. The amount of work my team and I have been putting in all summer on a consistent basis is preparing us for the best pre-season camp of our lives. We want to shock the world!

Who is the most underrated player you’ve played with and why?

The most underrated player I’ve played with is my boy John Lambert. He is currently a free agent right now due to his pro day debut being during covid. In only his first year of starting on the field for Towson University he was able to make an impact on the defense. Had an interception and made some big time sacks for the towson defense. He is someone with a strong work ethic as well who is constantly waiting for his number to be called. Another underrated player I’ve played with was a safety/outside linebacker named Mantriel Reeves. This 6’3, 215 lb was something straight out of a comic book, built like an action figure. His length and speed had him flying around the field making plays left and right. Definitely one of the most physical safeties/outside backers I’ve played with. His situation is similar to John’s where he too had his pro day debut during covid. Nonetheless he still works everyday waiting for his number to be called. He currently had a workout with the XFL showcase which he is preparing for. The last player I want to mention is a safety/ cornerback I am currently playing with right now. His name is Jahlil Brown and he is currently going into his final year of college football. He made the second team all conference defensive back in the NEC. He is someone to look out for! Very physical safety and is not afraid to come down and lay the boom whether it’s on the run or the pass. Another one who I would say is one of the most physical safeties I’ve played with.


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